Well, it’s about time I got on with my story!
I slept very soundly that night on the train as it took us over the mountains to Italy. When we arrived in Rome the next morning, I saw newspapers with pictures of the World Trade Center and headlines with the words GUERRA and AMERICA.
I think the news had the effect of making strangers more likely to talk to each other. Seeing that we were from America, native Italians and fellow travelers alike expressed their sorrow over the lives lost and asked if the situation was likely to delay our return home. We had to tell them that we didn’t know.
In the meantime, there was a lot to see in Rome. The other cities we had visited were old, but Rome was ancient! We didn’t have to go to a museum to see artifacts from Biblical times.
I don’t remember the exact order we took in touring Rome; the days are a bit blurred together. But here’s a list of some of the highlights:
— We visited the Colosseum, site of the Roman Empire’s bloody games. Even though the ancient Romans didn’t have access to the building materials and technology we have today, it’s my understanding that we still make use of many of the same construction principles they used in building our stadiums and arenas.
One thing I found particularly interesting about the Colosseum was the versatility of its design. The floor of the arena itself is gone, and you can see the maze of passageways and rooms underneath, but originally, they could have used platforms to lift people and animals from the tunnels up into the arena for a grand entrance. And apparently, the arena could be flooded in order to stage miniature naval battles. That’s something even a multipurpose stadium like Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh never did. (Thankfully, they never had fights to the death there either, though.)
— We stopped at a rather nondescript grassy field with a large, dusty oval track. I wouldn’t have noticed much about it if Dr. B. hadn’t stopped to explain that this was once the site of the Circus Maximus, where the Romans held chariot races and other public events. He also said that while you usually hear about Christians fed to the lions in the Colosseum, it was likely that far more Christians had been martyred here.
— We visited some ruins thought to be the remains of a prison where the apostle Paul was held. He wrote some of the epistles while he was imprisoned in Rome. I tried to imagine what the place might have looked like as a dark, cramped cell. Some arches, columns, and walls were still standing, and I could see the outlines of the rooms, but now the place was open and full of sunlight, more like a courtyard than a prison.
— A guide took us through some catacombs, the system of tunnels and tombs that the early Christians used to meet in secret and hide from Roman persecution. (If I remember correctly, the tunnels and burial chambers were around long before the Christians began to use them, but they came in handy.) The walls were marked with symbols like the cross, the fish (which became a Christian symbol because the letters in the Greek word for fish, ichthus, are an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”), and the anchor (which may refer to a verse in the book of Hebrews). I remember specifically keeping an eye out for the anchor, because the Christian musician Michael Card had recently released an album about the book of Hebrews, “Soul Anchor,” and in the album notes he mentioned that the anchor was at least as prevalent as the cross among early Christian symbols.
— So far, I had visited England, France, Germany, and Italy. But I also got to visit a fifth country– a country so small that’s it’s inside a city, and most maps of it include all of its buildings! Vatican City, the capital of the Roman Catholic Church, is the smallest country in the world.
The most memorable thing I saw there was the Sistine Chapel, with Michelangelo’s amazing painting covering the ceiling. In the middle is the famous depiction of God’s creation of Adam, their hands just a few inches from touching.
Almost everyone has seen photos of this painting, but what isn’t easy to see without being there is that the chapel ceiling is arched, not flat. That had to make painting it a lot harder, but Michelangelo actually used the three-dimensional shape of the ceiling to his advantage. Some of the architecture from the walls continues seamlessly into the painting, making it look like the room is taller than it really is. At the top, it looks like you are looking up into heaven. Pretty clever! Michelangelo made a painting with perspective effects for people on the floor even though his view of it was from a couple of feet away, with paint dripping in his face.
— The climate in Rome was a huge change from cold and rainy Berlin. It actually got very hot, and it was tiring to be out in the sun. The remedy for that was to buy gelato from a street vendor. Gelato is a bit like ice cream, but more flavorful, like fruit sherbet. It is really, really good!
— The hotel we stayed at was just across from a little pizza place. Pizza originated in Italy, but American pizza is actually quite a bit different, from what I understand. This was an American-themed pizzeria, so it was like a taste of home! There was even a picture of the New York skyline on the wall.
The pizza there was flatbread, cooked on a griddle in a big rectangle. You could ask for a piece of any size, and you paid for it by weight. The proprietor was happy to see us come back each night– we told him that we might be eating there for a while, since no one knew when we were going to be able to get a flight back into the United States.
I’m almost done with this story– one more post should do it!